While tequila is blue-blood, dancing in the limelight, Mezcal is the dusky cousin who’s having a better party in the smoky basement. Both liquors come from the same Agavaceae family of plants, but tequila is exclusively from blue agave, while mezcal can come from any one of the maguey plants.
Mezcal reminds me of grappa. It’s made old school style in small batches, it can be throat ripping fire, or nuanced liquid smoke. It can be clear, or it can be aged in oak to give it a softness and golden color. There’s a little tickle at the back of the throat that smells and tastes like grappa, but they are very different flavor experiences.
Let me be clear, I’m no mezcal expert; we discovered it quite by accident on a stroll around the Lower East Side. We were hungry and decided to take a gamble on Casa Mezcal late on a Sunday afternoon. The place was quiet and we grilled our friendly waitress on all the intricacies of mezcal. It takes about 7 years for the plant to mature, then the heart of the maguey is roasted in a covered, underground pot. That’s where the smokey flavor comes from and then it is single distilled one. Tequila is distilled twice for a purer, smoother product.
We asked for a neat shot so we could see what this mezcal business was about, and the waitress chose a clear, new mezcal for us. It was served with two slices of orange dusted with worm salt. Yes. Worm salt. It’s ground up dried moth larva, like the worm (which is really not a worm) you may find in a bottle of tequila. It tasted, um, earthy. But it was great with the orange and a sipful of mezcal.
We ordered an assortment of peasant style tacos and two mezcal cocktails. The cocktail selections were unique to say the least with ingredients like bell pepper and basil, but the flavors really worked. The glasses were rimmed red and green, half with hibiscus salt and the other half with avocado leaf salt. The magenta colored hibiscus salt with it’s tart acid note was lovely to look at and lovely to taste. A very interesting cocktail flavor; it lends itself to pairings with fruits and vegetables and herbs. I suppose that makes sense since Mexico is known for its fruits and vegetables.
And the tacos? Yummy bits of stewed chicken and pork and beef, served on fresh corn tortillas. Delicious. I’m not a Mexican connoisseur but this seemed like good home cooking, and that works for me. (A quick search on Google & this place is meant to be all hot 'n tot, but on a Sunday afternoon, it's just cozy.)
88 Orchard St.
NYC (between Grand & Broome St.)